In the more than thirty-five years since I graduated from high school, I’ve lived in six different states and one foreign country. In that, my experience is probably not all that untypical of those of you sitting in the pews this morning. Sure, there are a number of you who were born and raised here in Madison, a number of you who were baptized and confirmed here, but we live in a mobile society, much more mobile for the most part than previous generations (immigration notwithstanding. We also often think of our spiritual lives in terms of journey, so often in fact that it becomes almost a cliché. Still, I doubt that many of us draw parallels between our spiritual journeys and the circumstances or life choices that have contributed to our moves across the country, the continent, or even oceans.
Many of us have complicated relationships to those places we have lived over the course of our lives. Sometimes, we look back nostalgically on those places, on our home towns, remembering with great fondness the place where we were born and raised. Sometimes, we wish we could go back there to live. Others of us remember those hometowns very differently and remember how eager we were to leave. The same is true of other places we lived—the colleges and college towns where we came of age; cities or towns where we had our first homes, or first jobs. And some of us remember such places with less fondness, even hate; places where our initial hopes and eagerness gave way to sadness or failure and we left to seek new opportunities and new life elsewhere. Sometimes, we may even have wanted to take Jesus’ instructions to his disciples literally and shake the dust off our sandals as we departed.
We have come to this place today from many points of origin, our stories and paths converge here today, for a single Sunday morning worship service or perhaps for much longer. We come in search of God, seeking solace and sustenance, bread for the journey, and these words of Jesus offer a new way of thinking about where we have been and where we are going. They bring us words of hope and challenge, and encourage us to think of our own spiritual journeys in light of Jesus’ journey, our tasks as his disciples in light of his own ministry.
The instructions Jesus gives the seventy here are dramatic, fascinating, and puzzling. They have fascinated and served as models for later Christians for centuries and some scholars suggest that their origins lie in the early Christians’ experience of itinerant ministry and mission. Before we look more closely at them, I would like to draw your attention to the way this passage connects back with last week’s gospel. In both instances, Jesus sends messengers before him; then it was to a Samaritan village, now he sends them to all of the villages and towns he expects to visit. They are preparing the way for him. The second connection is more subtle. Last week the gospel began with “Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem.” In our passage, the phrase that’s translated, “he sent them ahead of him” reads literally in the Greek, “before his face.” So we are to see these instructions and the mission of the seventy in light of what has gone before—the visit to a Samaritan village, its rejection of Jesus, and the disciples’ desire to destroy it.
The instructions are clear, dramatic, and from our perspective, rather austere. The seventy are to take only the clothes they have on. Jesus tells them to focus on their mission, don’t be sidetracked by people they might meet along the way. The threat of opposition looms over all—they are like lambs sent into the midst of wolves and the note about going two by two is probably also in part about safety.
Perhaps most surprising are the words about receiving hospitality, especially the double admonition to “eat what is set before you.” But that’s not all. We tend to worry about overstaying our welcome when we visit friends—either for an evening meal or as houseguests. Jesus had no such concern: Remain in the same house; he told the seventy, don’t move about from house to house. But if a town won’t receive you, go out into the streets and say: “go out into its streets and say, `Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you.”
Here’s the deal. We’re inclined to think of the twelve when we hear the word “disciple” mentioned in the gospels. We interpret Jesus’ instructions as relevant to the men he called by name. But disciple in the gospels means much more than the twelve. We’ve already seen in Luke the inclusion of women among that group and even women held up as exemplars of true discipleship. Here it’s even more obvious. Jesus commissioned seventy to go out, two by two. They aren’t named. We might even assume, given what Luke has said before, that this band of seventy missionaries includes women as well as men. And by extension, we should conclude, that Jesus’ instructions include us.
Those journeys that I mentioned at the beginning of this sermon? We should interpret them as journeys with Jesus, and his instructions to the seventy are instructions to us. He has sent us out before him, to proclaim the good news of God’s reign.
Oh, I don’t mean that we are to go out knocking on doors, walking two by two as Mormon missionaries or Jehovah’s Witnesses do. Nor do I mean that we should stay at someone’s house indefinitely. Rather, what is important here is to understand that Jesus didn’t just send out seventy disciples to preach the good news and heal the sick. He sent them out to do his work, to extend his ministry of healing and his proclamation of God’s reign: “Whoever listens to you listens to me and whoever rejects you rejects me and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.”
We are called to be more than followers of Jesus. We are called to do more than listen to him. We are called to be his presence in the world around us. Now, what might this mean? I’ve already said that we don’t need to go out knocking on doors, or even preaching on street corners. What we are called to do is to see our encounters with others as opportunities for them to experience the presence and love of Christ. Most of us don’t want to have anything to do with sharing anything explicit about our faith. Some of us are probably even fearful that if we were to be explicit about our membership or regular attendance at worship services, our friends, co-workers, or acquaintances might laugh or ridicule us; that in certain contexts to admit our faith might have negative consequences in our work or career. So be it.
Still, that shouldn’t prevent us from acting in such a way that the love of Christ shines through and becomes present to those we encounter, to live and work in such a way that people come to know, through us the good news of Jesus Christ.
And we should take solace in something else in these words. Jesus doesn’t care about the results. He gives instructions, tells the seventy what to do, but has nothing to say about measuring success. In fact, he seems to suggest, if you fail, it’s their fault. Shake the dust off your shoes and go to the next town.
We tend to think of outreach and mission as extraordinary things. Around here, when we mention outreach, we’re usually talking about our food pantry or First Monday, perhaps the Haiti Project or some other effort of the diocese or national church overseas. We think of outreach as something we do above and beyond, outside of our daily lives and routines. It should be more than that.
Here’s something I’d like you to think about in the coming week or weeks. How can you or I, how can we share the good news of the coming of God’s reign in our daily lives, in the routines of work and play? Can we embody and incarnate the love of Jesus Christ in such a way that strangers we meet, or people with whom we work begin to sense the presence of Christ and begin to wonder about the possibilities of God’s amazing grace?